Exactly what are boundaries? And why are they important?
One of the best explanations of boundaries I have been able to find follows below in violet. And while it is written to address romantic relationships, it applies equally well to all types of relationships, including the one with your narcissistic mother, father, siblings…and other people in your life as well: friends, co-workers, employers, landlords, etc. You can find the whole text here.
In the physical world, boundaries are things that separate one thing from another, like walls that separate the outside of a house from the inside. Though they have no physical substance, psychological boundaries act very much like walls, by separating the private parts of people or relationships separate from the public parts. When an intimate relationship of any sort is occurring there is, in a manner of speaking, a psychological boundary around that relationship. The boundary is not there in any physical sense, of course, but nevertheless, secrets stay within the relationship as though there is a real wall holding them in place. It is trust that holds shared secrets in place and which creates the relationship boundary. If trust is betrayed, the boundary fails, and strangers get to learn the private details of the relationship.
This is a boundary your NM understands, and understands very well: the boundary that keeps you quiet about what goes on behind closed doors. But like so many other things with your NM, it only goes one way—her way. It doesn’t matter if you are five, fifteen or fifty, she can blab all of the personal details about you that she wants but you are expected to keep mum about any- and everything that has even the slightest potential to hold your NM up in a bad light…or anybody else on her “Golden” list. Your NM finds absolutely nothing amiss in sharing the most intimate, embarrassing events from your life with her friends, your friends, even complete strangers. She will tell about ever transgression you ever committed, real or imagined, every childish misperception, your first period, about taking you shopping for a training bra, how she found out you were sexually active, what she overheard when you and your college boyfriend spent the night together in your old bedroom—anything and everything that she thinks will get and hold the attention of her listeners, no matter how badly it hurts or embarrasses you. In fact, your embarrassment is just a bonus for her…
But her betrayal of your intimate secrets, her abuse and disrespect of you does not, in her mind, break that boundary. Let you apply tit for tat and tell about finding strange men in her bed or a diaphragm in the bathroom when your dad was on a business trip or finding her crotchless panties mixed in with your undies in your drawer or how she conned grandma into disinheriting your uncle so she could get the whole estate, and she will blow a gasket. It is strictly a one-way street.
There are also psychological boundaries around each individual in a relationship. These individual boundaries have to do with self-determination and self-respect. They define each partner's right to keep some part of themselves separate from the relationship (to not let it define them utterly), and also to expect that their partner will treat them with respect. When these individual boundaries are intact and in place, the partners feel respected and cared for and not taken for granted. When they are broken by disrespectful actions (such as when one partner abuses the other, or makes unilateral decisions) they end up feeling abused.
This applies to parent-child relationships as well as adult romantic relationships. When your individual boundaries are not respected, are not even allowed to exist, you feel abused. We all have needs for privacy, autonomy, independence, and as we get older, the greater our need for them grows. We also have sexual boundaries from an early age. When any of those boundaries are routinely disrespected, we may have difficulty developing our own distinct personalities, likes and dislikes…even our own feelings. When a child says “I don’t like Uncle Jack!” the boundary-respectful thing to do is ask that child to tell you why. It may be something innocuous, like Uncle Jack ate the last piece of pie at dinner last night…and it may be something sinister like Uncle Jack has been touching the child inappropriately. Either way, the wrong thing to say is “What a terrible thing to say! You love Uncle Jack! Now stop that noise, you’re embarrassing me and besides, he’s baby sitting while Auntie Myrtle and I go to the movies!”
Boundaries are important because they help to define us, to know where “I” begin and somebody else, like our NMs, ends. “…without boundaries our identities become diffused – controlled by the definitions offered by others…”
Boundary violations of any sort tend to cause relationship problems. When one partner's [or parents’] actions cause another to feel belittled, unimportant or abused, then that other partner [or child] is faced with the task of learning how to defend themselves.
One of the ways an NM will attempt to control you is not only to dictate your tastes (“Of course you like spinach, Effie…now clean your plate or you won’t get dessert…” “You don’t like yellow…it makes you look sallow…”), but to limit those very things that you need most as you grow and mature: privacy, autonomy, and independence. If she hasn’t convinced you by enmeshing with you, by convincing you that your tastes and desires, likes and wants are parallel to hers, she will move on to stronger tactics like curtailing and controlling those things you need most as you mature: she will make outrageous intrusions into your privacy, forbid you autonomy, stringently limit your independence. “The narcissistic mother will violate the normal boundaries of her children, making them feel like extensions of herself. She may give away the property of her child for no reason other than for control.”
Learning how to effectively defend yourself against unwanted intrusions is not as simple as it might first seem. It is, of course, necessary that you learn new ways of interacting with intrusive or abusive people which will cause them to back off and leave you alone. Less obviously, however, you also have to learn how to recognize and become aware that you are being intruded upon in the first place, and you must also decide that you are a worthy person who does not deserve to be invaded or treated badly. Until you master the latter two tasks, knowledge of the former will not do you much good…
Narcissistic parents violate our boundaries in countless ways, many of them subtle, many of them vehemently overt. A subtle violation could be making plans that include you without getting your consent beforehand, then provoking guilt when you decline. “But Aunt Marge is counting on you being there, Lucretia! Surely you can get out of that committee meeting at work…” An overt violation would be making plans that include you without checking with you first and then being punitive if you decline. “You will be there, young lady, or you can count on your birthday check this year being permanently lost in the mail…”
Narcissistic parents often try to control us simply through expectations. You have always done Thanksgiving and Christmas at Mom and Dad’s house, why should your being married and now having in-laws change that? Just bring the new husband along…or send him to his parents for the holiday alone. Narcissists are notoriously inflexible (unless it is their idea or they can see some benefit to themselves) and so your introduction of the idea of sharing the holidays with your new husband’s family may not be well-received. There may have been a sibling who tried to blaze the trail, so you have heard the feedback via such things as the Thanksgiving prayer that includes “…and thank you, Lord, for our loving family…except Mary, of course, who would rather be part of Brad’s family than ours now…”
The boundary violations that are expressed as silent expectations (that have consequences of guilt or wrath if you don’t comply) are perhaps one of the most common forms. They tend to be the most subtle and the most easily overlooked. Your mother calls and she “needs” you to come over right away—her voice sounds urgent but she won’t tell you what she needs you for. You leave a meeting—or a date—or your grocery cart—or your new lover—to rush to her side only to find out that she “needed” you to open a pickle jar, reach something on a high shelf, hang up a picture, or take her to get her nails done. And she is completely clueless as to why you might be annoyed because your compliance is expected, it is her “normal,” and that does not include you feeling inconvenienced or annoyed with her self-centeredness.
Some NMs expect their adult kids to call them every day, sometimes multiple times per day. Or they call their kids every day, often at critically inconvenient moments like while preparing or eating dinner or putting the children in the bath or to bed. Her disruption of your life and routine is inconsequential to her…because nothing in your life, including your kids, should be as important to you as she is. And if you reach the end of your rope and you lose it, telling her to back off, don’t call during dinner, don’t call every night, don’t be such a pest, you either get guilt-tripped or you get lambasted with her opinion of what an ingrate you are that you can’t spend five minutes on the phone with the woman who endured three days of labour pains to bring you into the world and who gave up a promising career to devote her time and energy, funds and youth to raising you.
One clue into recognizing when your boundaries are being assaulted is that she won’t take “no” for an answer…or that you have been cast into either a superior or subordinate position. Your compliance is expected and she either tries to browbeat or guilt you into acquiescence. You are not being treated as an equal with whom she negotiates or, if a negotiated agreement cannot be reached, withdraws gracefully and respectfully.
Once you know your boundaries are being violated, what do you do? It is easy enough to say “you set new boundaries with your NM and then you defend them,” but what, exactly, does that mean?
Let’s say your NM calls you three times a day and once she has you on the phone, she won’t hang up. This disrupts your work, your family life, your social life, and all of your attempts to get her off the phone meet with limited success, at best. If you take an abrupt tactic, like saying, “I gotta go Mom, my boss is headed this way,” and hang up the phone, on her next call she will be hurt that you hung up on her, so now you have to deal with that, as well.
So the first thing you do is you have to set a boundary with Mom…and for a boundary to work, it has to have a consequence (which you must enforce, or there is no point in doing this). For this Mom, you might call her and say “Mom, I need you to call me less often, and no more calls at work. I am going to make myself available to you from 6 pm to 6:15 every evening and you can call me then, but if you call any other time, I won’t pick up the phone.” This, of course, assumes you have Caller ID or some other way of knowing it is her. Then, you stick to it—if she calls at 10 in the morning, you simply do not pick up the phone.
Now, some NMs are crafty little weasels and try to come up with ways to get around your ban. If she figures out you are using Caller ID to monitor her calls, she may borrow a friend’s cell phone or call from an unknown location to get past that. So what do you do then? In the off change that this might be an emergency, the moment you recognize her voice you say (interrupting her, if necessary) “Is someone injured or dead? Why are you calling me at this time of day?” Of course someone in the family is sick or dying, you make the exception…but if they are not, you say… “Mom, I am at work and I can’t talk now. Call me this evening at our regular time,” then hang up on her.
You have to toughen up if you want to do this because she will redouble her efforts to re-take control of your relationship with her. Because by setting and enforcing boundaries, that is what you have done—you have taken control of the relationship: you are setting the ground rules, calling the shots, handing out consequences for violations of the rules. And having control wrested from their hands does not sit well with NMs, whether they are the ignoring or engulfing type, whether they are of the overwhelming bombastic variety or the sweet little old “butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth” kind. They want their relationship with you to be on their terms and by setting boundaries and enforcing them, you take the power away from them and they are guaranteed not to like it.
How your NM responds will be unique to her. Some will be indignant and call you out, others will pretend compliance and try to get around the new rules with feigned emergencies or pretended lack of understanding. Others will retaliate by withholding things they think are important to you while still others will comply superficially, but use the new situation as a source of Nsupply from their friends and family members. Some may even cut all contact with you in retaliation, but put the blame on you for the purpose of getting Nsupply from others. You are going to be the bad guy, make no mistake about it, but it is the only way you can reclaim control of your life, so you are going to have to deal with the censure as it comes.
It is not going to help to confront your NM about her sympathy seeking ways, in fact, it may exacerbate them if she knows it bothers you. The only confrontation is to be firm about the boundaries and if she violates them repeatedly, make the consequences more draconian than before. “If you call me at work one more time, I will not take a call from you for a week,” or whatever means enough to her to give her pause.
A friend of mine who is blessed not only with an NM but with an NMIL as well, constantly fields fantasy stories…truth re-imagined and re-written to make saints out of sinners, or phantasmagoric gossip that my friend knows is grossly exaggerated and sometimes even fabricated. Her two Ns are also Olympic-level complainers about everything and anything, which can be extremely wearing over a period of time. My friend has found it helpful to simply say to the N of the moment “I do not want to discuss Mr. Frisbee’s prostate surgery…or anybody else’s surgery, for that matter…and if you bring it up again, I will go home/turn the car around and take you home/hang up the phone…” She only had to follow through on her threat a few times for her NM and NMIL to get the point: respect her boundaries or there will be a consequence.
And that is the key to successful setting and maintaining boundaries with an N: make a boundary clear, announce the penalty for violation, then exact that penalty without hesitation or remorse. And if that doesn’t work, make the penalty stronger and keep escalating it until it does work.
The kinds of boundaries your NM may violate are legion. Let’s say you limit the amount of sweets your children are allowed to have and you hand them out as rewards for good behaviour, grades, completing chores, etc. And let’s say that when you let your kids spend a day with their grandparents, one set of grandparents respects your views on child rearing (even if she privately disagrees) and the other discounts and disrespects you completely, feeding your kids sugary cereals, giving them candy all day, and sugared soft drinks instead of milk with their meals. When you ask her not to do that, she tells you, “Oh, it’s OK, I’m Grandma and I’m allowed to indulge them!” Or suppose you go to the school to pick your child up and she’s gone, only to be told “Her grandmother picked her up,” and you don’t know which grandmother or why she came for your child. Suppose you have told your mother that your son cannot have violent video games because they affect his behaviour and she buys him the latest blood-and-guts game because “he wanted it and you can’t tell me what to get my grandbabies for Christmas…” All of these are examples of disrespectful behaviour towards you and your autonomy and all of them need boundaries set and enforced. And depending on how recalcitrant your NM is, the consequences you prescribe can be mild to a law-enforcement intervention severe.
I have heard of NMs coming into their adult daughter’s homes and rearranging the furniture, taking items from the home (including jewellery and clothing). I have heard of NMs, upon learning that their daughter is having a party to which they are not invited, showing up anyway, with friends in tow, virtually daring the daughter to shut the door in her face. I have heard of NMs inviting themselves along on vacations, honeymoons and second honeymoons, attempting to dominate wedding planning (even reserving a venue she liked but the bride didn’t). There is no aspect of your life that your NM cannot try to insert herself into, from your love life to your employment to your credit.
Some NMs, the more malignant ones, may go even further. I have heard of stolen identities, check fraud, tax fraud (claiming you as a dependent when you aren’t), credit fraud, trying to gain custody of grandchildren by smearing the reputation of the parent, false accusations of immoral and/or criminal activity. If this is how they react to boundary setting, then you are dealing with a more pathological personality and probably should give some serious consideration to going No Contact.
There is an old saying that “if you want something to change, you have to change something.” Your NM is not going to change how she interacts with you because it is working for her so, if it is not working for you, you are the one who has to change something. Setting boundaries is a really good place to start.
Next: Sanity and Perspective through Journaling
It is difficult to deal with a narcissist when you are a grown, independent, fully functioning adult. The children of narcissists have an especially difficult burden, for they lack the knowledge, power, and resources to deal with their narcissistic parents without becoming their victims. Whether cast into the role of Scapegoat or Golden Child, the Narcissist's Child never truly receives that to which all children are entitled: a parent's unconditional love. Start by reading the 46 memories--it all began there.